I’ve been going to the gym solo lately as I’m injured and can’t really go to CrossFit. It’s not all-together unfamiliar as this used to be my preferred means of exercise. However, after experiencing a thoroughly more exhaustive, functional and effective methodology, it’s radically changed my outlook on how to get the most out of my solo gym time.
I see that most gym-goers have two factors in common: they are stagnant and they are unbalanced. They focus on external physique and “problem areas” without understanding how to build an athletic foundation to transform their body and achieve a higher level of fitness that cuts across a broad range of movements and techniques. In my opinion it’s a problem for the intellect. You have to identify your biggest challenges and tackle them directly. I’m speaking from experience here. I chased a carrot-on-a-stick for many years trying to build fitness piecemeal and I’ve only recently begun to tackle it holistically. It’s rewarding yet humbling to be sure.
Your biggest challenges to overcome as a solo gym-goer are not how many exercises you can do in one session or how long can you stay on the treadmill. Your true challenges are:
- Selecting the right exercises. Rather than trying to perform the most number of exercises or an increased duration of them, pick exercises that cut to the heart of your athletic needs. (covered below)
- Performing exercises correctly. There’s only one right way to perform most exercises. Unfortunately it might take some time to learn it and groove that movement into your muscle memory. (covered here in part 2)
- Workout programming. Rather than doing the same tired exercises day after day, learn how to mix them up properly day-to-day week-to-week to build your athletic potential to new heights. (this will be covered in part 3)
Selecting the right exercises
Everyone enters this gym with at least some idea of what they need to do to improve their fitness. Unfortunately these notions are usually nowhere near the center of their athletic needs. Hitting the bulls-eye of your athletic needs is step 1 of exercising smartly and it all starts with a willingness to learn new things.
Despite being somewhat fads, the BeachBody workouts have done a great job of getting people to hit that bulls-eye–something CrossFit takes to a whole different level.
There’s a common phrase in the nutrition community that you should shop near the perimeter of the grocery store purchasing mostly fresh meats and produce and avoiding the aisles which are littered with processed foods that do more harm than good.
If there were a similar adage for the gym it would also advise avoiding the “aisles” of machines, gravitating toward the squat racks, medicine balls, pull-up bars and open floor spaces.
If you’re new to the gym it’s very likely you’re embarrassed to a significant degree and are probably going to steer toward machines because they are less intimidating and hard to do wrong. Unfortunately, as is the case with most easy things, machines yield the least results. Most of them target specific areas when it’s more critical to have a strong foundation of proper motor patterns, core and leg strength than it is to have nice biceps or chiseled delts. There’s a reason painters start by blocking out the entire canvas.
What should comprise the foundation of your exercises? Barbells, Plyometrics and Calisthenics.
I sense this is going to be an uphill battle–trying to convince you of the merits of barbells. I’m listing this before plyometrics and calisthenics because it’s more likely you have stigmas attached to barbells and those who use them. Barbells are probably the best way to instill proper athletic motor patterns, transform your body and gain strength from the inside-out. Barbells, and more specifically back-squats, are where I would start if I could go back in time to my 15 year old self. The problem with back-squats, however, is that they can be intimidating and they suffer from association with bulk.
Thankfully this is changing in no small part because of CrossFit. (There are plenty of high-performing men and women in the CrossFit community who have slender athletic physiques.) This is a good thing because squats give you a rock-solid core, powerful hips and legs followed by strong arms. Performing squats well requires and supports flexibility and contrary to popular belief will not make you bulky. Specific workout programming and diet make you bulky; exercises can’t do that on their own.
Squats and other barbell exercises teach you how your body mechanics work; how an elegant and graceful motion allows you to move weight with ease. These movements transfer to almost every other athletic movement. Barbells are to athletes what tuning forks are to musicians.
Whether you’re completely new to squats or just a little rusty it’s best that you get a session or two with a trainer or coach who has experience with track and field, football or of course, CrossFit. Learning proper form is imperative (more on this in part 2) and standard everyday trainers aren’t always well versed with squats–thankfully this is changing. Odds are better than not that your gym has a trainer who loves barbells. Find him or her and setup a session.
Fun Fact: women have a natural inclination to proper form and technique when it comes to squats and other barbell exercises. Men have to work at it a lot more, mostly due to limited range of motion.
Also knows as “bodyweight exercises,” these are exercises performed without any equipment or added weight like: push-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups. There are a million different calisthenic exercises each favoring a different part of the body and they are infinitely scalable. They integrate multiple joints and muscles, forcing them to work in unison rather than isolating them as machines do.
No matter how weak or athletic you are there’s always a bodyweight exercise to challenge you. It’s worth learning and mastering as many as possible to keep your workouts from getting old and tired.
There’s one device that deserves special mention here as it helps you bring your bodyweight to a number of different exercises. TRX training is great for beginners and professional athletes alike. You can compose entire workouts with the TRX suspension straps.
Plyometrics are exercises performed at maximum intensity like jumping over or on top of something, sprinting, et cetera. These exercises are the glue for the barbells and calisthenics. They ensure that the strength and power you are developing is transferred to functional real-world movements. They are also a lot of fun and often give you an excuse to get out of the gym.
Combining calisthenics and plyometrics is the foundation of the BeachBody workouts and nearly every bootcamp and fitness fad since the beginning of the fitness industry. Most of them try and insert some “irreplaceable” contraption to compound the effects. Don’t believe the hype, it’s the same old calisthenics and plyometrics at work.
Rather than setting a goal to spend 45 minutes on the treadmill, try a few sets of good form squats followed by few rounds of mountain climbers and russian twists.
In summary, avoid targeting “problem areas” until you have a strong foundation based on functional movements and strong motor patterns. True fitness is built from the inside-out.
What’s in Part 2?
Now that you’re willing to challenge yourself with new exercises you’ll need to focus on form and technique, but as a solo gym-goer, how do you do that? Read part 2 now.